The number of children who are too anxious to attend school some or all of the time is on the rise. We find out more about EBSA

Words Libby Norman

School refusal has become a buzz phrase in parenting circles over the past year or so. It is also an area of concern across the whole education landscape. There is evidence the number of children absent from school for some or all of the time is growing. Alicia Drummond – founder of the website Teen Tips and associated school platform Wellbeing Hub – believes the numbers are worrying. “The latest stats will tell you that in November 2022 there were two million children in England missing from school and not in school. There are lots of different reasons for that, but government figures suggest that between one and two per cent of those are because of EBSA.”

The acronym EBSA is the preferred term for school refusal. It stands for Emotionally Based School Avoidance (you may also see ABSA – Anxiety Based School Avoidance). While we all sigh at the arrival of yet more education acronyms, the right descriptor is important here. “Refusal is not a helpful word,” says Alicia Drummond. “Children are not being a problem, they’re having a problem. If you focus on the absenteeism and call it a refusal you are less likely to go into what’s really driving it.”

It’s important to recognise the clear distinction between EBSA and truancy or ‘bunking off’ as an occasional act of teenage rebellion or pique. “School truancy is deliberately trying to get out of school because there’s something you’d rather be doing,” says Drummond. “The definition of EBSA is when children fail to attend school because it’s too emotionally challenging; they attend, but only if there’s a very high level of support in place; or they avoid certain days, times of day or classes.” EBSA is more prevalent in secondary years, affecting boys and girls equally. It is also an umbrella term – there are many reasons why school attendance falls down.

Drummond, who is a BACP-accredited therapist, has done a lot of work with schools and young people over many years. She’s recently witnessed rising interest among the 200+ independent and state schools that come together to discuss prevalent education and wellbeing issues as part of Wellbeing Hub. Recently, she gave a talk at Dukes Education’s inaugural education conference.

Causes and effects

So, what causes EBSA? Alicia Drummond has lots of cases, gathered from real life and discussions with schools, parents and pupils. Sometimes trauma at home spills over – the pupil who regularly missed Thursdays because it was his mother’s day off and he wanted to stop her from drinking. Or the pupil who was acting as peacemaker in his parents’ messy divorce. Other children are experiencing family and identity confusion – such as the brilliant young artist from a family with four girls who stopped attending art class altogether because she didn’t want to lose her ‘label’ as family creative after one of her sisters started taking the same subject seriously.

There may be undiagnosed SEND issues (these often become visible in senior school, when the pace of work and complexity of social interaction intensifies). Also issues around OCD disorders, where a child takes so long to get ready they will be late and that’s so threatening that they would rather not turn up. Physical conditions also spark EBSA, such as the brilliant athlete who just couldn’t cope with classes, even though he was academically able. He was eventually diagnosed with RED-S, a condition where energy burned exceeds food-energy intake – his avoidance of the classroom was because he was so physically drained.

“Early intervention is critical in preventing a molehill becoming a mountain – the longer a child stays out of school, the harder it is to return”

Children may not be absent from school all of the time – just struggling at certain times. Drummond recalls a teacher voicing concerns about one Year 5 pupil. She would come to class in a highly anxious state, but then settle once everyone was busy doing things. “The teacher said, ‘that’s not EBSA is it?’. I replied, ‘well yes, it is because the anxiety disappears when the threat disappears’.” Threats can be a huge part of EBSA – children are avoiding situations they feel they can’t cope with.

One big question mark surrounds Covid-19. Has the pandemic made school avoidance more prevalent? Not an easy one to call, but perhaps Covid showed some children a route around difficulties. Drummond points out that the vast majority of children headed back to school gratefully, adding: “But for those who were already struggling – friendships, on the spectrum, found school exhausting, didn’t have a sense of connection with staff and peers, bullying or friendship problems – for them, Covid was fantastic. They didn’t have to deal with all the extra difficulties”. Then, too, there are the children who may have been impacted by parents’ anxieties. School was an awful experience for some adults, so how can they be positive when they see their child struggling? For others, Covid unlocked many fears, so the security of home remains preferable to the dangerous world beyond the front door.

School refusal – understanding EBSA
Talking to your child without judgement is critical, say experts, and the sooner the better

Coping strategies

One thing is certain, parents who have a child with EBSA – or suspected EBSA – need help. No one wants to (or should) drag an unwilling child through the school gates. And nor should parents struggle on alone. Even if you suspect specific school issues – perhaps bullying peers or a bad relationship with a teacher – are at the root of a problem, it’s important to collaborate with the school to help your child. “If, as parents, you can’t work with the school, you’re pushing water uphill before you’ve even started,” says Drummond.

Sitting down with the child in order to find out what is distressing them is the critical first step. This can be a slow process and conversations needs to be empathetic and non-confrontational. “Only by looking 360° are you going to make any progress,” says Drummond. She works all the time with schools and says there’s invariably a positive and helpful approach to finding solutions. “In my experience, they are incredibly keen and go above and beyond – go out to the home, meet in a neutral space, invite families in out of hours so it’s quiet.”

“EBSA is more prevalent in secondary years, affecting boys and girls equally, and it’s an umbrella term – there are many reasons why school attendance falls down”

It’s good to remember that school can be intimidating for all children sometimes. Alicia Drummond says practical therapies can and do work. It might be sitting down with an awkward teen and helping them come up with a list of conversation starters or talking to the child on the edge of the playground and pointing out how peers are making friends. She adds that it’s important not to “pathologise” normal human reactions – the fears and anxieties that are all part of growing up. Where parents suspect EBSA, early intervention is critical in preventing a molehill becoming a mountain – the longer a child stays out of school, the harder it is to return.

Most important of all, says Drummond, involve your child in finding the solution. “That’s really important. Often children are experiencing a sense of powerlessness. It might be friendships, relationships at school. Whatever it is, they feel powerless to change something. We don’t want to take their power away a second time.”

School refusal: EBSA checklist

* Early intervention is critical – talk to your child if you spot a pattern.

* Don’t focus on school avoidance (what), but the reasons for it (why).

* Avoid raising anxiety by talking about schoolwork or milestones missed.

* Involve school early, as your partner – ‘we think we have a problem’ is a helpful opener.

* Take advice – similar issues have probably been encountered and solved before.

Teen Tips

Further reading: Natasha Devon on navigating teenage years

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